Homicide: Life on The Street: A Reflection on the Greatest Police Procedural of Time — And What It Taught Us About Policing Today
Part 1: The Blue Wall Will Always Be There
In my humble opinion, the greatest drama of the 1990s was NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street. It was one of the most quietly groundbreaking shows in so many ways, from its cinematography, editing and use of music, from being one of the most racially balanced series at a time when having one African American actor in the cast was considered ‘major’ and perhaps most importantly, being one of the most honest series about policework in all of its flaws and how something as horrific as murder is just routine.
The police procedural up until the arrival of Hill Street Blues in the 1980s was all about showing perfect policemen always doing the right thing for justice. Hill Street Blues shook it up by showing the cops basically flawed, the system always being underfunded, and the cops always failing because the system never worked right. Homicide was a natural progression of that, but went further that the system not working right was how the system functioned at all. It’s a straight line from that to The Wire which was, as fans know, the brainchild of David Simon, who wrote the book the series was based on and was a staff writer on the show.
For understandable reasons the police procedural has undergone significant scrutiny over the past year with even the very best of them looking deeply flawed in retrospect. Homicide mostly escaped this scrutiny unharmed, but there are those who can see the flaws inherent in the series makeup and by extension how police do business. I view this in a different manner: is it possible that Tom Fontana and his writers actually were trying to explain how badly flawed the way police do business is and we the viewers and the critics simply overlooked it at the time? Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, but considering that Fontana was famous for showing in his other shows that there was no simple answer to our problems in the medical system or the prison system, and that the impetus for so much of the action in The Wire comes from a cop who is not interesting in solving a problem but showing just how much smarter he is than the bosses and everybody else, there is an argument to be made that they were trying to tell that story. The fact that Homicide was never a ratings hit adds to that argument — fans who wanted their cops to be Hunters and Joe Fridays weren’t likely to want to see cops this utterly uninterested in looking so unheroic at times.
So in this part of the article, I’m going to take a look at some of the critical storylines of the series and how the writers were clearly — and sometimes subtly — trying to show a message about policing.
Let’s start with one of their most popular storylines. In what should be a routine arrest of a suspect, Detectives Bolander, Felton and Howard are shot; Bolander in the brain, Howard in the heart. (Felton gets only minor wounds) For two episodes, the remainder of the squad pursues the pedophile the cops were going to arrest only to find he is innocent of the shooting after interrogation. In the third episode, the squad focuses on Gordon Pratt (a memorable young Steve Buscemi) wanted for an old warrant and who was in the address the detectives went to by mistake. Pratt when arrested is interrogated in one of the most memorable sequences in the series. He seems to be an intellectual and is definitely a racist and Pembleton (Andre Braugher) spends hours peeling back his flaws until at the last minute, he changes his tone and Pratt calls for a lawyer.
Now to be clear though Pratt is clearly suspicious, we have no proof he is guilty and he gives no sign of it in the interrogation. At the end of the episode, Bayliss (Kyle Secor) the conscience of the squad is called to the building to find Pratt dead. The landlord called 911 three times and no cops showed up. When Bayliss related this to the squad, all of them — even Pembleton — are blasé to Pratt’s murder and offer no assistance to Bayliss’ investigation. When Bayliss reluctantly tries to find out what they were doing at the time of the murder, the alibis they offered are of the kind they themselves could easily tear down with a little pressure. Bayliss presses on a little, but at the episode says the case will probably never be closed.
Now at the time the ambiguity to Pratt’s murder was one of the most admirable things I found about the storyline: we might suspect a cop is involved (Bayliss himself thinks Munch, who was at the shooting but unhurt was the most likely candidate) but there’s no proof. But looking at just how utterly unconcerned all of the cops — even Giardello (Yaphet Kotto) the lieutenant who usually presses his detectives to dig deep — are at either Pratt’s murder or the investigation it is unsettling to see just how these cops we’ve grown to like even despite their flaws, truly view the loss of a life. That Pratt had not even been charged, much less convicted of the shooting, is irrelevant. They thought he was guilty, he got what he deserved. End of story.
We get a much darker look at how ‘the blue wall’ works through the character of Detective Mike Kellerman (Reed Diamond) who was on the series from Season 4 to 6. Diamond was blond and blue-eyed and had matinee-idol looks. He was a fun guy who was devoted to the badge and being a good cop. But it was through two of the most critical storylines to his character that we got an idea of what a ‘good cop’ was to him — and probably to almost every other cop working.
Early in Season Five Kellerman, who worked in arson before transferring to homicide, is accused of bribery by a wealthy businessman who now that he’s faces charges, is naming cops he bribed. From the beginning the investigation brings out the worst in Kellerman. The first question he asked by a fellow detective when he arrives at his PBA lawyer is: “Are you the rat?” That seems to bother him more than being charged for bribery. We learn when the indictments are handed down that Kellerman is guilty of a crime — he knew the three other detectives were taking bribes and he didn’t report it to a superior or IA.
The rest of the investigation deals with what is the fundamental problem with so much police drama and probably police corruption in real life. This is actually made clear in an earlier storyline involving Kellerman. When a junkie who strangled a retired cop and was acquitted for it is found dead, Kellerman is called upon to investigate his son, also a cop (Bruce Campbell). After interrogating the man’s partner for hours, he gets him to testify against him in exchange for a lesser charge. Kellerman says: “I don’t like what you did, but the fact that you gave up (your partner) I don’t like that either.” And in that message we see the fundamental flaw when comes to rooting out corruption in the police force: it is considered worse by the department to tell people that a cop is abusing the badge than to actually be the cop abusing it. This is one of the bluntest statements ever made on a network procedural about the problems with police — and it was virtually unnoticed at the time. Hell, I’ll bet more viewers agreed with Kellerman at the time.
Throughout the bribery storyline, our sympathies are supposed to be with Kellerman even though his behavior is truly horrible. Anyone who doesn’t seem to be a hundred percent behind him all the time is an enemy. When the original Justice Department interrogator interrogates Lewis (Clark Johnson) Kellerman’s partner, and he explains what he talked about, Mike immediately turns on him for being dumb. When Pembleton says he never said Kellerman was dirty, Kellerman says: “You never said I wasn’t,” as if that justifies his anger. Even when Kellerman finally manages to walk out unscathed, it looks bad. The U.S. Attorney prosecutor seems to think he’s ‘noble’ for not ratting on his partners. The next day, he turns on her for not publishing in the paper that he was not indicted. It’s not enough that he wasn’t charged he wants the world to know he’s clean — even though in a very true sense, he wasn’t. Even when his fellow detectives party to celebrate his innocence, he offers them nothing but scorn because he feels, in their eyes, they didn’t offer enough support when he was going through his ordeal. There’s very little they could’ve actually done, but that’s irrelevant to him (In fact Giardello goes above and beyond the call to help him, and Kellerman chides him for not letting him handle it himself.)
One of the books I read on Homicide justifies Kellerman’s behavior in the next storyline by saying: “He went through the system and came out the other side.” The thing is, Kellerman was guilty, the system worked as it does for so many cops who are accused, and the aspersion is actually greater than the accusation, Therefore when Kellerman actually does commit a crime that is the ultimate dirtying of the badge, his behavior may actually be bringing out the true monster that he is.
Homicide’s most famous storyline involved the investigation into drug lord Luther Mahoney (some could see him as an amalgam of Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale). After over a year and a half, Luther is about to be arrested when Lewis chased him down in his apartment. Mahoney is about to surrender — and Lewis beats him up anyway. Mahoney gets his gun and Kellerman and Stivers walk in. Mahoney lowers it and says: “What you gonna do Detective? Read me my rights?” Kellerman says: “You have the right to remain silent,” and shoots him in the chest. Point blank. After Luther expires he turns to Lewis and Stivers. “Anybody got a problem with that?” Lewis says: “Nope.” Stivers seems to acquiesce. The three characters have just entered into a conspiracy to shoot a man who surrendered and cover it up. I’m not going to lie: I thought Luther got what he deserved. In that sense Simon and Fontana made the audience conspirators. That’s pretty dark. We didn’t know how dark this storyline would get after Mahoney died.
Season Six of Homicide was dominated by the aftermath of the Mahoney shooting, mostly represented by his sister Georgia Rae. Bodies would pile up at an astonishing rate in the aftermath — thirteen people would die before the season finale — all as a direct result of Kellerman’s actions. And the biggest concern the viewer was supposed to have been whether the detectives would face consequences. This is a blunt message that it doesn’t matter how many people have to die as long as a cop doesn’t get blamed for his actions.
And I need to make it very clear that no one on the squad covered themselves with glory in the aftermath. Stivers, the narcotics detective who felt the most guilt about what happened, remained silent. Lewis ended his partnership with Kellerman out of association, but would have no problem assaulting Georgia Rae after she filed a civil suit against him, and then using a fellow detective to run ‘policework’ on the Mahoney organization — work that led to six murders which he would provide intel to ‘solve’.
Even the people who seemed on the right side didn’t show it. In the early part of Season 6 new transfer Paul Falsone (Jon Seda) pursued the Mahoney shooting and Kellerman’s involvement without let up for the first half of the season. Is he here to expose the truth? No. He knew something was wrong, and he wanted to find out not to expose the killer, but to make sure his ass was covered. He would be the detective to provide Lewis with the intel he used, and showed no remorse for it later.
And not satisfied with his own guilt Kellerman became far worse. He began to drink heavily and barely put in the effort at his job. He pursued a federal judge in the Mahoney pocket, taped him for the feds, than practically yelled out his guilt in a courtroom full of Mahoney people. He didn’t even show any remorse when the judge ended up dead two episodes later.
It wasn’t until one of the Mahoneys shot up the squadroom, killing three cops and wounding two fellow detectives that Giardello would finally tell Pembleton, his best cop to find out what the truth was. And even then Giardello revealed that in this sense, he believed more in the blue in justice. Pembleton had no intention of writing the crime up as anything but murder after Kellerman admitted his guilt. Giardello went to Kellerman and told him if he quit the force, he would bury the charge. Kellerman did.
Pembleton was the only person involved with the Mahoney storyline who emerged with his dignity intact. Enraged by Kellerman’s actions and disgusted that Gee was going to look the other way, he resigned from the squad. Kellerman would leave disgraced but faced no charges. None of the detectives responsible for their part in anything involving the Mahoneys faced any consequences.
When the Season Six finale aired, as a nineteen year old viewer, I genuinely believed there was a chance none of the detectives involved would return the next season. The fact that I thought so at the time speaks volumes not just about my naïveté when it came to television but when it came to the police as a whole. Of course Lewis, Stivers and Falsone would face charges or at least be thrown out of the force. Look at all the damage they caused this season. In Season Seven, they were back on the street and it wasn’t even talked about. When Kellerman showed up in a two-part episode that season, he was considered a disgrace. But the series never made it clear whether it was because he was a killer or because he had ‘betrayed the badge.’ The attitude Kellerman took during his time under investigation is apparently one all cops on the show share, no matter how compromised they may be themselves.
So in the 1990s Homicide was clearly looking very deeply at policing issues that concern to its today. It’s very hard in retrospect not to see some of that as flaws in the show. But for all that, I still think the series must be considered groundbreaking in a way that few cop shows — and for that matter, few series before or in the era of Peak TV — have ever looked at. I’ll look into that prospect in the next article.